Is Free Will Possible?
Free will means that a person is absolutely independent of the world and thinks, speaks, and chooses without any influence from either the environment or culture. A person with free will can live in absolute aloneness, and act on the world with total freedom.
Is this state of free will possible?
Human babies are not born as clean slates. They come into the world with their own particular nature, constitution or temperament, which shapes the way that baby is going to respond to the world and the environment as he or she grows and matures. Some of the foundation of future behaviour is laid down in a person even before that person is born. The individual’s constitution is not rigid – rather, it contains a range of possibilities for the person. Nonetheless, it is there as the foundation on which the individual will evolve. This constitution is the result of countless past generations and their interaction with the environment, which is transmitted through the parents. Although parents are the immediate transmitters of the genes that make up the individual, yet that gene pool contains many streams from the past, long before the parents were born.
After birth, culture starts the process of conditioning the human child. On the foundation of the constitution or nature of the person, cultural conditioning creates a person who is ready to be assimilated and absorbed in the society. In essence, a person or an individual is the result of both the genetic makeup and the programming done by the culture. While genetics create a general biological and psychological template, cultural and social influences fill in the specific details of the individual.
In such a situation, is it possible to think of an individual with a free will, who will become totally independent of the world and nature and think, speak, choose, and act completely free from any influence whatsoever? Free will is neither possible biologically nor psychologically. Nevertheless, the mind or ego thinks that it possesses free will. The concept of free will is the result of the ignorance of the mind, an illusion of the ego. In this ignorance, the mind is not aware of its own nature, limitations, and dependence. Out of ignorance it thinks of itself as omnipotent.
Mind emerges from the interaction of two forces. The first one is nature, and the second is nurture. Nature provides a person with general biological conditioning, and nurture gives that person a specific cultural programming. As the mind crystallizes out of these fluid influences of nature and nurture, it forgets its own original nature. By being fearful of death, the mind or ego wants to become supremely powerful in order to control the processes of life and thus death. But how can one control both life and death? The mind or ego thinks that by free will it is able to think, choose, and act as it wishes. Such an idea is the beginning of illusion.
The idea of free will contains in it the isolation of ego from the rest of the world. If the ego truly had free will, it would be the master of nature and the world, and could act independently of the past and future. The ego would become the central truth in the scheme of the world. Only in this way could it implement its free will on the rest of the world and nature.
As we are developing a more scientific understanding of our world and of our own physical body and mind, it is becoming clear that there are no independent entities, individuals or even thoughts in the universe, which is the most basic requirement of free will. Everything is connected with everything else. The perception of independent parts in our universe is an illusion. Since every part of nature is affecting and influencing every other part, there is no possibility of complete independence. Without that independence, we cannot have true free will. Instead, we must see the universe as wholeness, in which each part forms an integral aspect of that whole.
The absence of free will doesn’t mean the absence of freedom. Life always gives many choices, and many doors to that freedom are innately built into the fabric of life. We can think of life as having a great range of potentialities, which may become an actuality or realization as awareness increases. Less awareness means less freedom. As awareness expands, one becomes cognizant of the presence of many doors of freedom around oneself – doors that were always there but hidden. Awareness is the light which shows the doors hidden in darkness. In the light of that awareness we discover ever increasing freedom. Each human being lives in a different level of awareness, and thus has a different amount of freedom. A sage lives in more freedom than a politician or businessman.
But these doors and this freedom are not the result of free will, because they are not the creation of the mind or ego. This freedom is there as the part of the wholeness which is beyond ego. The ego that is trapped in the darkness of ignorance, or lack of awareness, cannot see the doors that lead to freedom. But even to the least aware person a few choices are always available. As we make a choice on the path to freedom, a new door opens, which brings more freedom, and with the next choice access to more new doors of freedom. Finally, a point comes when this freedom becomes boundless, timeless, and infinite. At that point all doors disappear, and no structure confining human life is left. Such an experience is a cosmic state, completely beyond the confines of the mind and ego. In this state there is no free will but total freedom.